The Climb: Two
I almost told you that I didn’t want to climb the mountain this year. I almost told you that after three years of searching, the likelihood that we will find anyone is greatly diminishing. It is simple statistics.
But you can’t be tethered by anything so rigid as mathematics.
You told me once that math was your least favorite subject in school. I shook my head, wondering again at the set of events that led me to you.
I watch you skip up the mountain path.
The pack is heavier this year. My muscles already begin their protestations with each slow footstep.
I am getting older, fading.
You, though, seem to age in the opposite way. Not that you are getting younger, but rather that you are coming into more focus. I wonder if when I was your age, I looked the same to my elders. There is no one around to ask anymore, so I will never know if I ever held that kind of vitality.
The beginning of the climb is always the hardest. After spending the winter and spring in the flat, flat valley, my legs are unused to the exercise.
It isn’t long before I need to rest, and when I say so, my voice sounds faint and old.
You come and sit by me as I ease the pack from my shoulders. I almost groan as the pressure releases from my aching back. But I don’t want you to know what a weight it is to carry.
“Do you think this year will be different?” you ask. You’ve asked this question a thousand times, like a child seeking reassurance.
“I’m sure of it,” I say, like I always do. You don’t hear the lie in my words. I take a bite of the jerky I made for us before our journey. I hold out some for you. It’s wrapped in a plastic bag you found on the edge of the river. You take some and I’m glad to see you eating. You have become too skinny.
I used to hold a job in an office, in a city, in a country that no longer exists. Like most of my companions, I worked late hours and into weekends. Working to exhaustion was the only way that I could silence those insipid, snarling feelings. I wasn’t good enough. I was a fraud, and someone better than I was would come along any day now and take my job away from me.
The first I heard of the threat was during the Midnight Show. The voices of the television kept me company as I worked late into the night. The host and guest were arguing about a warning made by some obscure somebody, I don’t remember his name. But I do remember the argument: is there life beyond Earth? Whatever the scientist had found, it was moving toward Earth faster than anything scientists had ever recorded.
I switched off the television.
I don’t blame anyone for not taking the warning seriously. The idea of things hurtling toward Earth at speeds far faster than light was preposterous. And in those last few years of normalcy, it had become more and more common to distrust the experts. Their voices carried little weight as politicians attacked their character and questioned their credentials.
By the time the objects arrived, it was hard to tell if truth even existed anymore. When reality can be selected and molded by popular opinion, what use is there for science and objectivity?
Their arrival came on a Sunday. The radios were abuzz with stories of the strange objects that appeared over parts of Asia last night. There was no pattern to their locations. Some hung above overpopulated cities, others over small towns, and even others over empty fields. Were they vessels? Satellites? Weapons? Were they hostile or friendly? Were they advanced or primitive? Synthetic or naturally occurring?
The radio hosts took callers who claimed to know what they were, and I heard theories of everything from government surveillance to advanced extraterrestrial life. People wanted to know, what were they? Why were they here? Questions no one could answer.
Now that I’m hiking, my body slowly begins to recall the rhythm of the climb. Inhale. Step. Exhale. Step. And so on.
You charge ahead up the trail, as light on your feet as some sort of ethereal woodland elf from those stories you used to read. The ones you told me about when we first met.
Your hair shines in the sunlight, like a halo, and in some ways, you are like an angel to me. I know you would laugh and roll your eyes. I’m not the poetic one. I don’t have the gift for words, and so I don’t often express how glad I am to know you, and to have you as my companion at the end of the world.
I know, I know. You say the world hasn’t ended because we’re still here.
You are here.
In the city, no one is ever alone. Someone is always awake, listening to music, watching television, on the computer. There is always the sound of singing, of car horns blaring, of trains shimming along the tracks. For someone like me, it was a comfort. I could be alone without being lonely.
The morning the thing appeared in the sky over the city, there was no sound.
The silence woke me.
My clock told me it was after six, but no light leaked along the edge of my curtains. When I peered through the window. A large object took up most of the sky, casting long shadows over the city.
It was dark, black, but not black. A complete absence of color and light.
A cold unlike any that I have ever known washed through me. This was not of our world, or even our solar system. This was something strange. Something… Alien. Whether it was sinister or benign, it didn’t matter. I had changed. We had changed. We were no longer alone.
We reach the meadow, marking the halfway point for our first day.
I watch you as you take in the waterfall, the wildflowers, the bees, and the mice. You take so much joy in such simple things. I envy that in you. After everything that has happened, you still find wonder in the world.
I remember the first time we were here. You tried to convince me that you needed a nap and stretched yourself out in the grass with your face shining toward the sun. It was so spontaneous and so eccentric that I had not decided how to respond before you saw my utter confusion and laughed.
We were new companions, but even then, I treasured your laughter, as rare as it was.
I want to be the kind of person you believe in. The kind who is good, who is strong, who will protect you. As much as that desire burns, there are things that can’t be undone.
I did many things in those first few months that I’m not proud of, things that I will never utter aloud, but cities were hard places before their arrival, and they only became harder. You had to learn to harden yourself. It wasn’t about morality; it was about survival.
You have to understand that; I did what I did to survive. We all did. The entire city ran on the frazzled energy of terror and insomnia. All the while, the black-but-not-black object loomed over us. Pressed down on us.
I started to think of it as a monster, watching, waiting, hungry.
The streets were too quiet. Empty. We lived in a mausoleum. A graveyard of skyscrapers and hubris and hope. There were no distractions from my thoughts as I wandered the streets under the heavy presence of the object.
When would it take me? What would happen when it did?
I’d heard some hypothesize that the objects were our salvation, taking us away from a world we’d destroyed through greed and selfishness and endless, ravaging hunger. But would another life form judge us as worthy of saving, if it believed we had killed our own world?
I can’t go much farther without rest. You seem to sense that, and we stop for the night. I build our shelter while you gather firewood and we sit in silence, watching the flickering light.
I met you after I left the city. By then, I could wander for days without meeting another person. You were young, that was apparent, and obviously alone. You had a hollowness that reflected a hollowness of my own. You looked at me, and the hardness in my chest shattered.
Trust. After everything, I didn’t know it was possible. But there it was, shining out from the eyes of the young face before me.
I knew that I would protect you. I knew that I had to.
“This year will be different,” you say, and there it is again, that relentless trust.
“I’m sure of it,” I say, and for the first time in a long time, I believe it.
When I awake the next morning, you are already up. You’ve found some berries and placed a small pile on a cloth next to me. The fire expels warmth in snaps and pops.
I don’t ask you how you slept. I can tell by the curve of your shoulders and the weight in your steps that it was a bad night. I wonder if the nightmares have returned, but it could have just as easily been the hard ground or the cold that chased sleep away.
I ask if you’ve eaten, and you shake your head. I hold out some berries and I worry again at how skinny you’ve become. We eat together and the juice stains our lips and teeth. I point this out, and your smile is as rich and red as wine.
As we near the top of the mountain, the climb becomes steeper, rockier. We don’t have the breath for conversation now. We are almost there, but I am sweating and my legs and back ache, and my lungs tell me they need more air.
You ask me if I need a break, but I shake my head. We are an hour’s walk from the top.
Better to get there.
You look worried, and I want to comfort you, but I don’t have the breath.
We collapse to the ground when we get to the top, exhausted, sweaty, gasping. You laugh and your face seeks, finds a patch of sunlight.
As suddenly as the objects appeared, they vanished.
It should have been a relief, an unwinding, an expanding after months of constant fear.
But the world was too quiet, too hollow. The objects had not returned a single person they’d taken.
We stared at the empty sky for hours that day. Tears flowing freely and silently down our cheeks. Tears for the people we’d lost. Tears for a future that was as empty as the sky.
You leaned your head against my shoulder.
We hadn’t seen any other people in months, but we’d found a valley that would provide food and water and shelter.
You turned to gaze at the mountains. “We should climb to the top,” you said. “Maybe we will find others like us. Others left behind.”
I didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, I pulled out the tattered journal I’d found in the last town we’d traveled through. I flipped through the pages of bubbly notes, written in a hand so different from mine, until I found a clean page. I pulled out a pen, and we spent the rest of the day planning.
How strange it is, I think. Our camp is nothing more than a clearing in the trees but arriving gives the same sensation as returning home after a long journey. There is a familiarity here, the feeling that memories have been made here. In a few days, I know that I will become the person I am when I am here: diligent, alert, and energetic. A returning not just of place, but of self.
You leap to your feet and begin setting up our shelter and supplies. Whatever troubled you the night before has fled now that we are here, and I envy the hope that burns in your eyes. I don’t have the heart to tell you to prepare yourself. To tell you that believing that this year will be different will not make it true.
Is it selfish of me to enjoy the hope burning within you, knowing the crushing pain of the disappointment to come? Is it better that I guard you against hope so that I minimize that pain? These questions torment me every year, but I can’t bring myself to be the one who snuffs out the light of hope in your eyes. You are more courageous than I will ever be.
Night is falling, and you extend your hand to me. “It’s tradition,” you say.
I take your hand and we climb to the peak. You’ve prepared a fire on the small patch of flat land. We eat the food we’ve carried with us for the occasion and watch the last rays of the sun fade into the night.
The air is fresh and cool and clean, and the meal is warm and full of flavor. I have let my mind wander when I feel you tense beside me.
You are trembling, and in the firelight, I see your eyes are wide, staring into the darkness of the valley. You raise a trembling hand, point at something out, and out, and away; and I follow your gaze and even though I broke my glasses long ago and my eyesight is getting worse each year, I think I see where you’re pointing. Something lifts inside me, softens, melts.
When you speak, your voice is quiet and breathless; and your words, filled with terror and joy and relief and trust and hope, shatter me. “Something is out there.”